Car dealership closings dot Central Florida landscape

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KISSIMMEE — The dealership has been closed for just a year, but already weeds grow uncontrolled, the paint is fading and chains surrounding the parking lot are covered in rust.

Beneath the covered walkway of what used to be Coggin Buick- Pontiac- GMC on W. U.S. Highway 192, shirtless skateboarders videotape themselves rolling up and down the concrete ramps.

In the past six years, more than two dozen new-car dealerships in Central Florida have moved or gone out of business, and all but a handful remain empty. And with the depressed Florida real-estate market and struggling automotive industry, salvation for the properties seems unlikely.

The Orlando Sentinel has identified 25 closed stores, and only five are inhabited. Two are now county offices, two are used-car stores and one is an RV lot.

They range from small dealerships, such as the nearly 2-acre Land Rover of Orlando store in Longwood, to the massive 28-acre Bill Heard Chevrolet store on Interstate 4 at State Road 46 in Sanford, once considered among the best parcels of retail property in Central Florida. The dealership has remained empty since the Heard chain filed for bankruptcy in September 2008.

In 2007, according to Ward's Dealer Business, the Heard store did $144 million in business. Current price for the 10-year-old facility is $17 million.

"It's tough," said Marc Cannon, public-relations director for Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation, the country's largest new-vehicle retailer. "There is a limited number of businesses that can make use of a closed dealership. Most of them are big-box retailers, and with the economy what it is, there aren't many opportunities right now."

AutoNation has several closed stores in the Orlando area, including a Buick-GMC store and, next door, a Pontiac store in Longwood, and a Chrysler- Jeep store in Sanford. Another Chrysler-Jeep store vacated by AutoNation in Casselberry is occupied by Autosport, a used-car dealer. Massey Cadillac in Sanford is now a used-truck store, while the old Holler Chevrolet store in Winter Park is now Orlando RV.

The other two occupied dealerships are government-owned. Alan Starling, owner of dealerships in DeLand, Kissimmee and St. Cloud, closed a Chrysler dealership between St. Cloud and Kissimmee, which happened to be next to a new Osceola County complex. The county bought and renovated the dealership for office space. The same thing happened to the closed Clermont Chrysler store, which was bought by Lake County.

"If you notice," Starling said, "most of the dealerships that have been sold did not require a bank loan. One of the main issues with trying to buy large parcels of property is getting it financed."

An upside, though: It's a buyers market for those who do have money and patience.

"That's pretty much true with all real estate in Florida, not just car dealerships," Starling said. "The whole state's on sale."

In June, a Maryland-based analyst told The New York Times that about 2,300 auto dealers had closed across the country since early 2009, but that close to 30 percent have been sold and reoccupied as everything from schools to lumberyards. Those numbers, however, "don't really apply to us in Florida," Cannon said.

One of the realities for big-acreage dealerships such as Bill Heard Chevrolet, once billed as "Mr. Big Volume," is that because dealers must finance the inventory of cars and trucks on the lot before they are sold, the days of being able to choose from more than 1,000 new vehicles are over.

Both dealers and manufacturers are limiting their inventories.

"That's one of our main challenges right now," Alan Starling said. "We're selling a lot of Chevrolets, but we're having problems, like every other dealer, getting enough inventory."

For some closed stores, the situation is grim but not hopeless. In September, the Saturn of Orlando-Osceola store in Kissimmee, with nearly 15 acres, was listed for $3.69 million. Now, less than a year later, it's $2 million.

"That property is really worth twice what we're asking," said Trish Walden of Sperry Van Ness Florida, the real-estate agency that has listed the bank-owned store. Walden said that there has been a lot of interest in the high-traffic area on U.S. Highway 192, but so far, no one has closed a deal.

At 1010 W. Colonial Drive, the grandfather of the area's closed dealerships, McNamara Pontiac- Isuzu, just west of downtown Orlando, still waits beneath the classic porcelain and neon "Big Chief" sign that glowed over the lot for more than 40 years until the store closed in 2006. Interested in the 2.9-acre site? $2.85 million."Suitable for many uses," the listing says.

"There are tremendous bargains out there," Starling said, "and people who realize that, and can capitalize on it, will do very well after the market recovers."

Steven Cole Smith can be reached at scsmith@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5699.

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